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Article: Women in the Jain tradition

Contributed by Nalini Balbir

Women in the lives of the Jinas

A painting from a 15th-century manuscript of the Kalpa-sūtra shows Queen Triśalā and her newborn son. He will grow up to become Mahāvīra, the 24th Jina. This is a conventional way of illustrating the birth of a baby who will become a Jina

Mahāvīra and his mother Triśalā
Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)

Early sources recounting the lives of the 24 Jinas frequently feature episodes in which women are pivotal. For instance, there are the exemplary women who lead the female laity and female mendicant elements of the fourfold community, such as Sulasā.

Women also offer alms and medicine at crucial points, such as Candanbālā and Revatī. In addition, the first of the five auspicious events in the life of a Jina – kalyāṇakas – is birth, in which a woman gives birth to the infant who will grow up to be a Jina. Lady Triśalā, mother of the 24th Jina Mahāvīra, is an example of the mother of a Jina, who experiences the auspicious dreams that are significant omens of her son’s destiny.

Even so, all Jains agree that women are a threat, especially as they may prevent monks from strictly observing the vow of chastity, which is widely said to be the most difficult. Hence, even talking with women – or about them – is viewed negatively. The Prakrit word itthī-kahā – literally ‘woman-talk’ – describes this concept.

For Digambaras it is impossible to conceive of Mahāvīra as subject to these temptations. Albeit the young handsome son of a princely family, he renounces the world as a perfectly chaste man and never surrenders to the delights of love, thus embodying the perfect ascetic.

In contrast, the Śvetāmbaras’ biography of this Jina contains several features that underline the key role of women:

  • although reluctant, Vardhamāna – Mahāvīra’s birth name – obeys his parents' command to marry Princess Yaśodā
  • he fathers a daughter, Anojjā or Priyadarśanā, who marries Jamāli, the son of one of his sisters, and they are later responsible for an important schism in the community.

This probably intentional stress on feminine lineage may be part of a strategy to underscore a sectarian identity that is opposed to the Digambaras. It also contrasts with Buddhists since Gautama Buddha is said to have fathered a son.

The desire to describe Mahāvīra as a perfect householder before he renounces the world is perhaps a way to make the ideal he represents closer to the ordinary man. It is therefore a less extremist view, more in accordance with accepted social patterns in Mahāvīra’s time.

Jain goddesses and heroines

A highly decorated idol of the goddess Padmāvatī in the Walkeshwar Temple in Mumbai. The yakśī of Pārśvanātha or Lord Pārśva, the 23rd Jina, Padmāvatī can be identified by her snake-hood canopy. She is one of the most popular Jain deities.

Decorated idol of Padmāvatī
Image by Sd77 © CC BY-SA 3.0

Like other Indian traditions, Jainism has both a negative image of women and a tendency to extol certain female figures. These women may be viewed as worthy of worship because of their spiritual achievements or because they represent protective entities and are equated with benevolent motherly characters.

Art testifies to a fairly ancient cult centred on the mothers of the Jinas, especially Marudevī, the mother of the first, Ṛṣabhanātha or Lord Ṛṣabha. Among Śvetāmbaras she is said to have been the first emancipated soul in this era of time.

The main feminine deities of the Jain tradition are the female spiritual attendants – yakṣīs – attached to the 24 Jinas. Among them are Cakreśvarī, Padmāvatī and Ambikā. Connected respectively with the 22nd, 23rd and 24th Jinas, they have gradually become independent figures and occupy prominent places in worship. Their protection is invoked by devotees, both men and women. Ambikā is popular with the Jains of Gujarat and is the protective deity of places like Girnār. The goddess Padmāvatī is especially associated with Karnataka, but images of her are increasingly seen in Jain temples all over India. While the Jinas appear as distant spiritual ideals, these female deities are nearer to the human world and its difficulties. They are worshipped in the hopes of being blessed with wealth, good health, good fortune and so on.

Knowledge, a cardinal concept in the Jain doctrine, takes shape in figures that are all feminine. Examples include:

  • the goddess Sarasvatī, who is as important for the Jains as she is for other Indians. She is the goddess of learning who presides over the teaching of the Jinas, and is worshipped on the day of the festivals devoted to scriptures.
  • the vidyā-devīs, who represent various sciences
  • the ‘eight mothers’ or mātṝkās, a group of eight basic notions of Jain ethics.

Among human Jain heroines are satīs. This term refers to women who, though they faced trying circumstances, remained faithful to their husbands. Sixteen of them – the solā satī – are famous and dear to the heart of their chiefly female devotees. The number of satīs is not restricted to 16. Some lists include more names of illustrious female models in both olden and modern times.

The stories of the satīs are known from countless narratives and hymns where they are praised. Among them is Rājimatī, whose story is known as early as the Uttarādhyayana-sūtra and which is played on stage even today by young Jains. She was about to marry Neminātha or Lord Nemi, who at the last minute jilted her in favour of renouncing the world, but even so she remained faithful to him. She refused her brother-in-law’s offers of marriage and lived a life of celibacy.

Women in Jainism

This manuscript painting shows the 'fourfold community' of Jains listening to a Jina. All four parts of the Jain community are crucial and interdependent. Lay men and lay women are shown on the top rows with monks and a nun below

Fourfold community
Image by Wellcome Trust Library © Wellcome Library, London

Although the Jain tradition shows some of the common Indian and wider Asian prejudices against women, it undoubtedly appears an original way to give them some place in its general ethical scheme.

It demonstrates the following patterns:

  • women are fully included in the Śvetāmbara approach to attaining salvation but only partly in the Digambara model
  • Jainism is male-centered at an institutional level
  • the ascetic lifestyle reflects the power hierarchy of Indian society at large, in which women are subordinate to men regardless of personal qualities, education or experience
  • exemplary Jain nuns and heroines are praised in oral and literary traditions
  • goddesses and divine female personifications, such as the vidyā-devīs and ‘eight mothers’, have an important place, because they are figures of worship that are more accessible on an everyday level
  • historical scholars as well as present-day theological debates show that views of gender are complicated and continually move between two extremes.
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